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Tapping the Latent Power in What’s Left Around the Barnyard

Claudia H. Deutsch, NY Times
In a sense, it is the ultimate renewable source of fuel. Weather anomalies can kill off corn crops, calm the winds, obscure the sun — but through rain or shine, gusts or stillness, cows and hogs and turkeys spew forth a steady stream of manure, one of nature’s richest sources of methane, a principal component of natural gas.

And now, farmers and entrepreneurs are recognizing that this immutable fact can yield a steady stream of revenue and profit, too. Slowly, but steadily, they are replacing the malodorous lagoons used to treat the waste with machines that can wrest energy from excrement.

According to AgStar, a federal program that promotes the conversion of manure to energy, there are more than 100 anaerobic digesters — devices that create an oxygen-free atmosphere in which bacteria digest manure and release gas — operating in the United States today, with another 80 on the drawing boards.

“These are the only kinds of waste management systems that can actually put money in farmers’ pockets,” said Kurt Roos, program manager of AgStar.

There are a number of reasons for the new spotlight on what is called brown energy. Oil and gas prices have soared, even as environmentalists have sounded alarms about climate change. In the last two years, various state and federal agencies have subsidized purchases of digesters, since they capture methane — a potent greenhouse gas — before it escapes into the atmosphere. Many utilities operate in states that require them to include environmentally aware energy sources in their portfolios. They will often accept manure gas, since many farms have installed equipment to clean it.
(4 July 2006)
It would be nice if the articles on renewable energy went a little deeper in their analysis. For example, what are the limitations of methane generation? Aren’t the copious amounts of manure produced by intenstive livestock operations an artifact of cheap energy? To make intelligent decisions, we need a more complete picture. -BA

Shell Says Biofuels From Food Crops “Morally Inappropriate”

Reuters via Planet Ark
SINGAPORE – Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s top marketer of biofuels, considers using food crops to make biofuels “morally inappropriate” as long as there are people in the world who are starving, an executive said on Thursday.

Eric G Holthusen, Fuels Technology Manager Asia/Pacific, said the company’s research unit, Shell Global Solutions, has developed alternative fuels from renewable resources that use wood chips and plant waste rather than food crops that are typically used to make the fuels.

Holthusen said his company’s participation in marketing biofuels extracted from food was driven by economics or legislation.

“If we have the choice today, then we will not use this route,” Malaysia-based Holthusen said at a seminar in Singapore.

“We think morally it is inappropriate because what we are doing here is using food and turning it into fuel. If you look at Africa, there are still countries that have a lack of food, people are starving, and because we are more wealthy we use food and turn it into fuel. This is not what we would like to see. But sometimes economics force you to do it.”
(7 July 2006)

Malawi: Turning the Future Into Charcoal

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks via AllAfrica
Chopping down the forests for charcoal and fuel wood seems so shortsighted, but until there are alternative sources of energy for Malawi’s rural poor, the destruction will continue.

Malawi loses about 50,000ha of indigenous forest every year – the highest deforestation rate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. The government estimates that just 4 percent of the population has access to electricity; over 93 percent depend on wood fuel.

Satellite images have shown that “deforestation is one of our biggest problems”, commented Samuel Kamoto of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi. The country has an agro-based economy; the ecological crisis “reduces productivity” but also affects the fisheries industry, as water runoff washes more silt into Lake Malawi.

Charcoal production is supposed to be regulated, but the practice is so widespread that the law is virtually unenforceable. “I have been burning charcoal since I was young and there is no way I can stop it now, just because I am told it is illegal. Unless an alternative business is found, I will continue producing charcoal,” said a defiant 17-year-old primary school dropout, Richard Likoswe.

The maximum fine for being caught without a licence is 5,000 kwacha [US$40], but police at roadblocks usually just confiscate the charcoal. “Where do you get a licence? How many people have licences?” asked Likoswe – questions even government officials find difficult to answer.

For the past decade the government and NGOs have been trying to implement income-generating activities across the country to lessen dependence on charcoal and fuel wood.
(7 July 2006)

Malaysia weighs palm oil share for food, energy

Naveen Thukral, Reuters
KUALA LUMPUR – Hunger for palm-based biofuel is growing so fast that Malaysia has decided to stop licensing new producers while industry works out how to divide up its raw material between the food and energy sectors.

“The moment you have more and more biodiesel plants, the palm oil supplies will be limited, not enough for food and not enough for biodiesel,” Yusof Basiron, chief executive of the industry-funded Malaysian Palm Oil Council said in an interview.

“The government wants to maintain a balance.”

From Europe to Asia, green fuel plants are sprouting at a dizzying pace as the world is told it cannot live without cheaper renewable energy from vegetable oils and the price of crude rises inexorably, reaching a record-high of $75.40 a barrel this week.
(7 July 2006)